“The Story of My Dovecot” describes the effect of the notorious pogrom of October 20, 1905, on the Babel family and particularly on the author himself as a boy of eleven. It is one of Isaac Babel’s most autobiographical stories. Nevertheless, the author changes a number of crucial details, including even his age, to yield greater drama. The story is thus clearly a work of fiction, yet the author rightly maintains the verisimilitude of autobiography for its powerful effect on the reader.
The situation of the boy, as the story opens, is precisely delineated: His father will build him a dovecot and buy him three pigeons for it if he gets top marks in the Russian language and arithmetic exams. He needs the very highest scores, because the quota system will admit only two Jewish boys from his form into the preparatory class. If he is accepted into the higher school, his father, with his “pauper pride,” will enjoy vicarious success. The pressures on the boy, all ultimately a result of Russian anti-Semitism at every level in the society, are sufficient to keep him in a state of permanent, anxious daydream and reverie.
The boy fails to make the quota because the wealthy Jew Khariton Efrussi, a wheat exporter, bribes the school authorities to admit his own son instead of Babel. Such betrayal by a fellow Jew is unbearable (Babel senior wants to bribe two longshoremen to beat up Efrussi)—but, again, Russian anti-Semitism is the root cause.
In the following year, young Babel succeeds in his aim, befriended by a Russian teacher, Karavayev, who gives him the A+ grade he actually earns, and by Assistant Curator Pyatnitsky, for whom the boy, in a kind of exalted trance, recites from the works of Alexander Pushkin. After the examination, Pyatnitsky makes a point of...
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